Mirror, Mirror: 'Pan Am' clothes classy, '60s customs not so much

Pan Am, ABC's new airline drama, is worth watching if only to see stylish stewardesses clad in regulation cool blue uniforms, embroidered bags, and wrist-length white gloves.

And so far, our fearless heroine, Kate, played by Kelli Garner, is the chicest of all. Her civilian wardrobe includes a bevy of to-die-for midi-length pencil skirts, fitted short-sleeved cardigans, and nude pumps.

But while the fashionista in me enjoys the sartorially stunning slice-of-history series like Pan Am, Boardwalk Empire, and of course the doyenne of the genre, AMC's Mad Men, I can't help but think: The clothes of the era were sharp, but it sure was a crappy time for women - not to mention minorities - who lacked basic civil rights, earning potential, and sexual freedom.

These looks, classy as they may have been, were styled around the restrictions of the day, and there were many. Nude hose were a must, as women were not "ladies" without them. Pants were largely a no-no, too.

Bras were pointy and tight. Girdles, a far cry from the malleable shapewear of today, were downright painful. And girdles were required. For example, during Sunday night's Pan Am episode, Christina Ricci's character, Maggie, reminded a colleague that an attendant caught without her girdle would be fired.

"These shows represent the romantic narrative of the past," said Alphonso McClendon, an assistant professor of fashion design at Drexel University, who is studying the role fashion played in the Harlem Renaissance.

"While the clothes are beautiful, they don't tell the complete story, especially when it comes to African Americans, civil rights, and the struggle for women in the corporate world," he said.

The shows and our current fashion mood stem from what many refer to as the turn-of-the-millennium casual nightmare that made it socially acceptable to wear jeans to upscale restaurants and to bare our midriffs, well, everywhere.

And then there is my pet peeve, how modern-day reality franchises like the Housewives, whether Basketball or Real, have taken once-classy and established labels and made them look, well, cheap. I'm thinking specifically of Herve Leger's banded dress, a favorite look of the tawdry housewives. Its image has been ruined.

Our longing for all things retro has led Banana Republic to roll out a Mad Men-inspired ready-to-wear women's collection for the second year in a row. Online sites such as OneStopPlus.com are offering popular '60s fashions worn by the "first ladies of the air."

And even men's fashion is jumping on the period craze. The TieBar.com recommends bold ties in reds, purples, and yellows in "1920s-bootleggers styles just like in Boardwalk Empire."

Runway fashion is all vintage all the time.

Fall is full of belted shifts that take their inspiration from the 1960s, and the colored skinny pants of the 1970s. The just-ended spring 2012 runway shows were a burst of color: Silhouettes of top designers from Karl Lagerfeld's Chanel to America's Tracy Reese mixed in looks from decades ago.

McClendon says the turn to these looks is proof that we, the fashion public, long for simpler times. Back before the 1940s, he said, the runways dictated what women wore. There was a specific fashion cycle and people weren't confused.

"Fashion was structured and everyone including African Americans and Latinos wore the same thing in social settings," McClendon said. "Skirts had to be a certain length, pant lengths were consistent on every man. But people forget life was structured back then, too."

This makes me think of the cinematically beautiful movie The Help.

 Costume designer Sharen Davis did a superb job dressing Aibileen, played by Viola Davis, in smart frocks - in particular a burgundy long-sleeved shift with a deep V in the back. But as an African American woman, I'm sure glad I'm not relegated to domestic work.

Ane Crabtree, costume designer for Pan Am, has a similar philosophy.

On one hand, Crabtree, a former stylist for Elle magazine, loves searching vintage costume houses for appropriate dresses, like the satiny forest green Dolce & Gabbana shift Garner's character will wear in Sunday night's episode.

But this biracial woman (her father is white, her mother Asian) cringes at the restrictions of the time.

"I'm conflicted," Crabtree said. "These pieces do represent a time when our world was completely different and not necessarily better."

The upside is that the story lines in these shows, especially Pan Am, were happening on the cusp of change. Pan Am is set in 1963, as the space race and the civil rights movement marched on. The 1970s, the era when women would symbolically give up bras and pantyhose, were not far off.

"Fashionably speaking, we are now a better version of 1963," Crabtree said. "People appreciate fashion, but at the same time they are free to make the choices that are best for their lives, not the restricted society we live in."

I can't wait to buy a 1963-esque herringbone shift dress with thick belt and nude pumps.

Without stockings, of course.


Mirror, Mirror:

Elizabeth Wellington blogs on fashion at www.philly.com/philly/


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com, or @ewellingtonPHL on Twitter.